U.S. News

Surge in voter turnout gives blacks new voice in Ferguson, Missouri

(Reuters) - A surge in voter turnout helped elect two new black city council members in Ferguson, a Missouri city found by the U.S. Justice Department to be rife with racial abuses in its police and court systems.

A man walks past a painted and boarded up exterior of a business in Ferguson, Missouri, in this December 4, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/Jim Young/Files

After months of street protests, turnout in Tuesday’s vote was 30 percent, or more than double recent municipal elections in the St. Louis suburb, which is two-thirds black but has had only two African-American council members in its 120 year history.

Mayor James Knowles on Wednesday called the election a “milestone” for the city.

The six-member city council will be split with three African-American and three white members. Mayor Knowles, who is white, also has a vote on city issues.

Ferguson became the center of a national debate over race relations after a white officer fatally shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black man, in a confrontation in August.

“People had an opportunity to run for office, debate the issues, vote and participate in the democratic process and now it is time to move forward,” Knowles said.

The council meets for the first time with the new members on April 21 and faces several tasks including hiring a new city manager and municipal judge to replace officials who resigned after the Justice Department released a scathing report in March.

The department’s report outlined years of racially based abuses in police and court practices and demanded changes, buttressing complaints from African-American residents.

Knowles said the city hopes to have at least the outline of an agreement on the Justice Department’s demands by next week.

The new city manager also will have to hire a replacement for police Chief Thomas Jackson, who resigned.

The three candidates elected on Tuesday were Ella Jones, an African-American professor; Wesley Bell, an African-American judge; and former Ferguson mayor Brian Fletcher, who is white. Council member Dwayne James is also black.

Some advocates said they were pleased by the high turnout, but questioned whether the new council makeup will be effective. Many activists favored defeated candidates and also noted that Knowles, who some said should be ousted, votes on city issues.

“Hopefully the new electeds will hold the city to a higher standard with regards to listening and acting on behalf of the under-represented,” said state Representative Courtney Curtis, an African-American Ferguson resident.

Reporting by Carey Gillam in Kansas City, Missouri; Editing by Mohammad Zargham